In his first interview since he announced his retirement, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, on Tuesday said he was sorry for how he handled a secretly recorded meeting that led to his political downfall. He also suggested he did next to nothing wrong amid the fallout and defended his reason for participating in the 2019 get-together with a fellow lawmaker and a hardline conservative activist.
“If you listen to the recording, I did a horrible job,” Bonnen told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, referring to a June meeting with Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock. “I screwed up badly … I did a really poor job in that meeting and I’m very sorry for that.”
In July, Sullivan revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting and for months played it for certain Republicans before he publicly released it. The recording largely proved Sullivan’s allegations, including that Bonnen offered his group media access to the House floor if its well-funded political action committee targeted 10 Republicans in the 2020 primary.
In his interview Tuesday, Bonnen reiterated that Sullivan requested the meeting and emphasized that his goal for it, which he said came at the request of “some gentlemen,” was to convince the activist to stop politically attacking certain House Republicans ahead of the general election. Bonnen, who named certain lawmakers during the meeting before leaving the room, denied that a 10-member list was ever produced.
“I wasn’t in the meeting when that discussion happened, but it was simply a discussion that happens at the Capitol every single day,” he said. “It was going through a record vote that any Texan can pull up on their phone — just as I believe Mr. Burrows did — on a very important conservative issue.”
According to both Burrows and Bonnen, the members named all voted last year against a controversial bill that would have banned taxpayer-funded lobbying. Burrows, who has since resigned as chair of the House GOP Caucus, has provided similar reasoning for both the goal of the meeting and how 10 members were named.
Sullivan continued to criticize the speaker after Tuesday’s interview, again calling into question Bonnen’s telling and reiterating his stance that it was the speaker — not him — who requested the meeting.
Sullivan tweeted a link to a transcript of the meeting and said Bonnen is “trying to rehab his self-tarnished image, and trying to re-write what he said and offered.” He also listed a number of questions he said the speaker did not want to answer.
During the interview, Bonnen said he has spoken to almost all of those 10 members in the aftermath of the drama — though he noted that “some of them are unwilling to talk.”
“I’ve apologized repeatedly,” Bonnen said, adding that he owed his biggest apology to Burrows, who he pulled into the “meeting last-minute to be a witness.”
One of the main points of contention between Bonnen and House members amid the fallout was how the speaker responded — both publicly and privately — to Sullivan’s accusations, which also included assertions that Bonnen made detrimental comments about certain House Democrats, and Bonnen and Burrows knocked local governments.
In private conversations with members, Bonnen and his office characterized the allegations as downright false. And in a number of public statements, the speaker did not directly address specific aspects of Sullivan’s account.
At least one of those 10 Republicans on the political target list, state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said in a statement after Tuesday's interview that the speaker "gravely misses the mark."
"What Speaker Bonnen and Representative Burrows did in their secret, recorded meeting with activist Michael Quinn Sullivan is degrade decent members of the House of Representatives, target a small and select group of Republicans who voted in the best interest of their district rather than with the political desire of the Speaker, and belittle constituent groups who had confidence in them to lead," Darby said. "Texans deserve better than backroom deals."
Bonnen in his interview Tuesday said he continued to deny Sullivan’s allegations last year “because they weren’t true” — and noted he was specifically referring to the legality of the bribery accusation, which he said he was “hamstrung in saying anything about.”
“I needed to focus on that even though I knew it was unfounded more than anything,” he said, adding that Sullivan’s “garbage” accusation was later proven untrue after his hometown district attorney announced the speaker would not face criminal prosecution and the House General Investigating Committee closed an investigation into the matter.
Bonnen also said the only thing he did wrong amid the fallout was assuming Sullivan knew that remaining politically active would prevent the group he heads from receiving House press credentials.
“I just assumed he understood that,” he said.
Bonnen, who will retire at the end of his term after serving for over 20 years in the lower chamber, was asked at the end of the interview about whether he plans to play a role in the 2020 election.
“I feel passionately about conservatives and Republicans winning in 2020,” said Bonnen, who contributed to a number of House members ahead of the primary. “And any way I can be helpful in that cause, I will do so.”